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Pursuit of Greater Compensation for Bhopal's Victims Mired in Legal Maze

Roughly 20 years after the world's worst industrial disaster, the people of the Indian city of Bhopal still want justice. A breakdown at the Union Carbide pesticide factory caused a toxic cloud to fall on the city, killing thousands of people. But activists say efforts to compensate the victims fully have largely bogged down in lawsuits and bureaucracy.

The abandoned Union Carbide plant in Bhopal remains a grim reminder of the world's worst industrial mishap, a man-made disaster. Its victims say they have never been fully compensated, and no individual has ever been held accountable.

Sacks of powdered chemicals lie split open in a warehouse, alongside barrels of toxic chemicals, left unattended since workers fled shortly after midnight on December third, 1984. That was when a fault in a chemical tank caused a cloud of toxic methyl-isocyanate gas to descend upon the city. It killed 2000 people almost instantly, and more than 20,000 in the weeks and years to follow. Hundreds of thousands of others still suffer chronic health problems.

Contamination from the site, activists say, still endangers Bhopal's residents.

In the years since, efforts to get justice and compensation for victims have largely degenerated into a labyrinth of legal claims, drawn-out court cases and bureaucratic hurdles. The process is hampered by India's overcrowded and famously slow courts, where even simple criminal cases can take several years to wrap up.

In 1989, Union Carbide paid the Indian government a settlement of $470 million. But in a recent report on the Bhopal disaster, the rights organization Amnesty International says compensation payments were held up for years by government bureaucracy. The report also calls Union Carbide's attitude toward the Bhopal victims shameful.

Manu Gopalan is with Amnesty in India.

"Payments to victims did not begin until as late as 1992, when most of them were poor people, and they were in desperate need for immediate relief," he said. "[There were] huge amounts of bureaucracy, middlemen, corruption. An average compensation of $500 for injuries and disability, $1300 were paid for deaths."

Many of the disaster's victims are here in the Jawaharlal Nehru hospital in Bhopal, a government-funded hospital offering free care, exclusively to people suffering health problems as a result of the Union Carbide disaster.

Doctors treat 1500 outpatients every day, administrators say, and the hospital's 125 beds are usually occupied by those suffering more serious problems, including respiratory ailments and cancer, as well as nervous disorders.

Many have been left in poverty, because poor health prevents them from holding jobs, and the compensation payments ran out long ago.

Mohammed Amin, 48, says his four children pick through trash for plastic to recycle to support him.

He says he was given the equivalent of about $4.50 in compensation a month for three years. After that, the money stopped. He applied for more compensation, but never got a response.

In July, the Indian Supreme Court ordered the government to pay out $327 million in additional compensation, some of it the interest that accrued over the years the original compensation was held up. Those payments have just begun going to hundreds of thousands of victims.

Although the government settled with Union Carbide, activists and victims have filed other lawsuits in India and the United States.

But pursuing Union Carbide became more difficult in 2001, when it was purchased by the U.S. company Dow Chemical, which says the 1989 settlement frees it from further financial responsibility to the victims. Dow Chemical and Union Carbide refused to give interviews on the Bhopal disaster.

However, Union Carbide spokesman Tomm Sprick read a statement on the court's compensation order.

"We are gratified to learn that, this past July, the Indian Supreme Court ordered the government of India to release the remaining funds in the settlement estimated to be in the neighborhood of $325 million," he said. "We feel that money will go a long way toward helping the victims and their families."

There also is the question of what caused the disaster. Union Carbide says the chemical cloud was the result of sabotage by an angry employee.

Activists charge, however, that Union Carbide took advantage of India, a developing nation, to save money by lowering safety standards.

Days after the disaster, Indian authorities arrested Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson when he visited Bhopal. He posted bail, and then left the country. India has requested that Mr. Anderson, now 82, be extradited from the United States to face trial on negligence charges.

So far, that has not happened. Activists accuse India of quietly dropping the extradition demand, for fear of scaring off foreign investors.

Champa Dewi is the secretary of the Bhopal activist group, the Gas-Affected Women's Stationary Workers Association, which pushes for justice for the victims.

She says, in 20 years since the gas leak, all the Indian government has done is protect Union Carbide and its management, because it fears if it takes steps to hold them liable, foreign investors will not come to India and the government will not make any money.

Officials dismiss charges that they have given up pursuing justice for Union Carbide's victims. But they say there is little they can do to make the wheels of justice turn more quickly.

Uma Shankar Gupta is in charge of the government's relief organization for the victims in the state of Madhya Pradesh, where Bhopal is located.

He says Union Carbide has been shut down (in India), and a case is in court that demands the arrest of Mr. Anderson. So, he says, it is wrong to say that nothing has been done, because officials are fearful of scaring away foreign investors. It is simply for the courts to decide.

He adds that complaints about compensation are also a matter for the courts.

At the Union Carbide plant, little has changed since the night of the disaster.

The Indian government only this week has said it would take initial steps toward cleaning up the contaminated plant and surrounding land.

Activists want Union Carbide or Dow Chemical to pay the $500 million they estimate would be needed to clean up the site. The companies say the state government has accepted that responsibility, but the state government says it lacks the money to do the work. It appears that the decaying wreck of the Union Carbide plant will loom over the people of Bhopal for some time to come.